The NWT’s francophone school board is close to beginning legal action against the territorial government after five families were told their children cannot attend French-speaking schools in Yellowknife and Hay River.
The decision was communicated to families and the school board, known as the Commission scolaire francophone, in a letter from education minister Caroline Cochrane on Friday.
That letter followed a judge’s earlier ruling that Cochrane go back and reassess at least one case. The minister chose to stick with her initial decision.
Cabin Radio understands the students in question don’t quite meet any of the usual criteria to attend francophone schools, but the minister had been asked to use her discretion to admit them.
The decision came just three days before the new school year began.
Simon Cloutier, president of the Commission scolaire francophone, expressed dismay at the education minister’s decision – and said legal action may be imminent.
“We are looking at all the options,” Cloutier told Cabin Radio on Tuesday. “The only option we might have is to bring that to the courts.
“That costs a lot of money on both sides, which is all government and taxpayers’ money.”
The school board says the five families, who together were attempting to have six students admitted to francophone schools, are “immigrant and francophile.” The exact details of most of the cases are not public.
One case, which went before a judge earlier this summer, involved a child of new immigrants to Canada. The parents had placed their child into a francophone daycare upon arrival in Yellowknife and the child speaks three languages, with French said to be the language with which they are most comfortable.
Furthermore, the judge wrote: “If it was not for the fact that [the child] was born six months after the arrival of his parents in Canada rather than before their arrival, the application for admission could have been granted.” (In other words, a child who arrives as a new immigrant is allowed access to the franchophone school system, but a child born after their immigrant parents arrive is not, even if the difference can be measured in days.)
The judge ultimately ordered the minister to go back and do a better job of demonstrating she had followed the correct decision-making process.
‘This is ridiculous’
Speaking to the CBC, a senior official at the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment said the children’s admission was denied as the NWT’s francophone community is in good health and does not require the extra help.
“At this stage, it became very clear that there is not a thing that is jeopardizing the strength or vitality, in terms of numbers, of the francophone community,” assistant deputy minister John MacDonald said, according to the broadcaster.
“Under those circumstances it’s not necessary to admit non-rights holders into a French first-language school.”
Cloutier strongly objected to that argument.
Cloutier, who accused the minister of waiting until the last minute before an election period to avoid having to answer to the families, said the territory was misinterpreting census data and failing to adequately consider the families’ cases.
“Did they take time to think about the families’ wishes? Did they take time have to think about what that family and what that poor little student are thinking right now?” he asked.
“The children want to go into a school and the minister, not knowing them, and not taking into consideration any family factor or attachment to their language, to their community or whatever, decides, ‘Well, I’m sorry, there is no need for the francophone community to have you on board.’
“Come on, this is ridiculous. Seriously, it doesn’t make sense at all. The job of the minister of education is to think about family, think about what they want, and think about what is good for them.”
The territorial government, which shuts down all but essential operational communications during an election period, did not issue a statement regarding the minister’s decision.
The territory did, however, issue a statement on July 26, when it appealed the judge’s order that the minister reconsider her decision.
“Given that the GNWT’s appeal is not likely to be decided before the beginning of the school year, I will be reconsidering my previous decision as directed by the court. I will advise the Commission scolaire and parents involved of my decision shortly,” Cochrane said in a news release at the time.
Cloutier said the minister had broken that promise by taking until late August to respond, adding the school board would consult the affected families before initiating legal action.
Asked if the relationship between the school board and territorial government was now entirely broken, Cloutier said: “I have to be very honest, I don’t know where we go with this. They’re forcing us to bring everything back to the court again.”